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June 26, 2006

Death and Coroners

In the State of Indiana the position of Coroner was originally created by the State’s Constitution over 200 years ago.  And while medical and forensic science has changed incredibly the past two centuries the role of the coroner has remained mired in the past.  This inequity drew national attention several weeks ago after a county coroner in Indiana misidentified two university students involved in a fatal car accident and changed the lives of their families forever.  One young girl who was thought to have perished in truth was recovering in an intensive care unit while the other girl was buried under the surviving girl’s name.

The incident took me back to my own son’s death from inhalant abuse when the coroner ruled without the benefit of an investigation that the cause of his death was drowning and the manner of death was accidental.   While it is certainly true that death from inhalant abuse is difficult to determine, had the coroner called for an inquest and subpoenaed witnesses to tell what happened that afternoon in June of 2001, he would have most likely concluded that David’s drowning was precipitated by sudden sniffing death syndrome a side effect of inhalant abuse.

Coroners have powers, like the issuing of subpoenas that are rarely used, and often consult with and bow to the wishes of the families as to how they would like the cause of death to appear on the Death Certificate.  This not only leads to sloppy procedures, as evidenced in the above mentioned tragic case of mistaken identity, but also distorts cause of death statistics.  In the United Kingdom where mortality statistics are meticulously recorded, a coroner convenes an inquest each time a suspicious death occurs, regardless of age. 

Perhaps it is time for Indiana to join the 21st Century when it comes to determining what kills its citizens.

June 26, 2006 at 02:00 PM in The Odyssey | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 18, 2006

I Can't Remember

I can’t remember when the first can of computer duster showed up in my son David’s room, but it certainly caused me no alarm.  As parents we work hard at providing the “tools” our children need to navigate the increasingly complex culture we live in and my wife and I were no exception.  Professionally I was an early adopter of desktop technology and felt it was important that my boys have all the advantages that a personal computer offered.  So by the time they were both in high school I had arranged for them to have their own computers in each of their bedrooms.

When the can of computer duster first appeared in David’s room I was impressed at what I assumed was his pride of ownership and desire to keep his equipment in good working order.  He had always been very particular about his appearance and usually kept his room in much better order than his older brother.  So when I saw the “duster” on the dresser I took some satisfaction in his seeming fastidiousness.

But like so many parents, I was seeing what I wanted to see in spite of the warning signs that were all around me.  Only weeks before David had completed an intensive outpatient program for substance abuse.  He was still attending an “aftercare” program of weekly meetings and mandatory drug screens.  He was at that highly vulnerable period all addicts face in early recovery when the desire to get high is still a powerful force to be reckoned with, a force that was more powerful than we knew, but more importantly more powerful than he knew.

Somewhere along the way David had learned that he could get high from inhaling the propellant from cans of computer duster, that it was cheap and could be purchased at any drug store, that it left no tell tale signs, and best of all…it was not detectable in the routine drug screens he had pledge to us that he would take and pass.  But the propellant in “duster” is poisonous when inhaled and can cause sudden death by precipitating cardiac arrest.  Death can occur without warning even the first time someone uses an inhalant.

And so it was that on a sunny June day five years ago, while David and some friends swam at a backyard pool, inhaling the propellant from the can of computer duster and diving under the water to intensify the rush, that the innocuous can that first appeared in his bedroom beside his computer, claimed his life.  His heart stopped, his lungs filled with water, his body convulsed as he sank to the bottom of the pool and drowned in the shallow end.

I can’t remember when the first can of computer duster showed up in David’s room, but I do know there was one in the emergency room when my wife and my son Josh told the doctors and nurses to stop their valiant efforts to revive him.

Now....I can’t forget that.

June 18, 2006 at 11:33 AM in The Odyssey | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 10, 2006

Stigma and Denial and the Vigil For Lost Promise

This past Thursday and extraordinary event took place in Washington D.C. on the grounds surrounding the headquarters of Drug Enforcement Administration.  More than six hundred people attended the first ever National Vigil for Lost Promise honoring those who have lost their lives to substance abuse.  They came from all over the country to remember their loved ones, share their stories, share their grief and the lost promise of lives cut short by addiction.  And in doing so they honored the struggle of their family member or friend and found hope by being with others who understand their pain and sorrow in ways that no other can.

Marissa and I had the honor to be one of 8 families who sponsored the event and had a small part in the program.  My brief remarks touched on the denial and stigma what surrounds the disease of addiction and I would like to share them with you:

Marissa and I did not want to believe that our perfect son, from our perfect family, could become addicted to drugs.  We thought we would know the signs of serious drug use.  We believed the excuses and explanations that David gave for things that in retrospect we know were signals of his increasing addiction.  While we acted in ways that we thought appropriate at the time, our denial of the seriousness of David’s problem led us to delay seeking professional treatment.  This delay unintentionally enabled his disease to grow so powerfully that all the love and all of the help he received, was not enough to prevent him from making a fatal choice. 

We were also encumbered by a suffocating and at times a paralyzing stigma that continues to surround substance abuse in our society today.  The fact that addiction was recognized as a disease in 1956 by the American Medical Association has not ended the negative attitudes towards those with substance abuse problems.  Ignorance, stereotypes and intolerance continue to be at the root of the bigotry against addiction and enables stigma to remain a powerful barrier to families seeking help for their loved ones.  Marissa and I like many other parents, felt the dark shadow of that shame and the feeling of guilt that somehow we had failed at being good parents, and ultimately…had failed our son. 

But today we are here to begin to remove the stigma of substance abuse and replace that shame and despair with hope.  And if we can lift this shadow of stigma and denial it will move our society closer to providing the help for people with addiction when they need it the most.  Over the past five years Marissa and I have learned many things…we have learned the power of sharing our personal story.   We have learned that by speaking out we put a face on the cost of the disease of addiction.  And, most of all we have learned that by speaking out we honor our son’s struggle with this disease. 

Today we ask you to join us in this struggle….this struggle against stigma and denial by telling your own story…..and in doing so, together, we will put society on notice that we will not be silent, and we will not be ashamed anymore.

June 10, 2006 at 04:44 PM in The Odyssey | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 01, 2006


Last night Marissa and I were interviewed for a new video on Inhalant Abuse that will be available to schools this fall.  We told our story, which is never easy, and at the end the director asked me this question:  “What would you say to the kid who is watching this video, sitting at the back of the class, who has just “huffed” before coming to class and thinks it is no big deal?”

I looked directly at the camera and said, “This is not a game, inhalants are poisons, and when you use an inhalant, it’s a life-and-death decision every time you take a hit.  This is not a personal choice you make that only affects you…it affects the lives of every person who touches your life…and ultimately it can be a choice that is forever.”

June 1, 2006 at 10:00 AM in The Odyssey | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack